After the Cabin – A Trip to Switzerland

Well, it’s Little Switzerland, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Lest anyone be concerned we somehow managed to weasel our way into Europe despite our perceived status as coronavirus carriers. No such luck. But Little Switzerland seemed about as far away from the plague-ridden swamp of Florida in late July 2020 as the actual country would have been.

Following our idyllic two days without electricity in the cabin on Sandy Mush Bald – one of the most beautiful places we’ve been and our explorations of the “balds” – it was time to venture north. Even though our summits were severely curtailed this year, there was a chance for one – Mt. Mitchell – the highest mountain east of the Mississippi at a whopping 6,684 feet. It was an easy (if seriously winding) drive from Asheville along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which, despite its reputation for summer traffic jams was practically deserted this year.

We’d planned to do the “easy” hike up to the summit, only to find it was closed, so there was no alternative but the “harder” “Old Mitchell Trail.” We had a quick picnic lunch at the welcome area which normally houses a restaurant – needless to say, this year it was closed. By now our daughters A and S  were quite tired of the picnic food we had lugged from Florida and had been dutifully eating for the last several days, and were questioning their parents’ fondness for non refrigerated cheeses (read Laughing Cow), not to mention the other dietary staples of life without electricity (read dried salami). A’s boyfriend N, however, was quite polite and ate his salami and laughing cow sandwich without comment.

In any event, we all ate enough to fortify ourselves for the couple hours hike to the top. It was a very beautiful trail, a bit too crowded for my taste, but had some fun moments of easy clambering up and down some steep cliffs and rocks. But the Razers Edge at Katahdin in Maine – where we were supposed to have been in a pre-pandemic world – it wasn’t.

Regardless, a good time was had by all, and it was time to journey on along the rhododendron-bordered parkway to our next stop – the Skyline Village Inn in Little Switzerland. J found the place on the internet (where else) and it was reasonably priced. Things we didn’t know about it:

  • The inn has been around for decades, backs up to a cave, and was used as a site for transporting moonshine during prohibition;
  • It’s a well known spot for motorcyclists and has a special open air garage for parking bikes;
  • The rooms are small but are wood paneled through and through, including the ceilings. I’ve never seen more wood in one room in my life, short of a log cabin.
  • There’s a great game room with darts, pool, and an elderly mannequin sitting at the bar dressed in her motorcycle garb; and
  • We were the only non bikers staying at the entire place.

And the other thing – the Skyline Village Inn offered one of the best meals I’ve had recently, which was enhanced by the view of the mountains from the outdoor patio where we ate.  There were only a few items on the menu and steak was the order of the day. Cooked by the owner on a grill on the patio – just as if you were at a neighbor’s cookout, the steak was accompanied by a potato salad that I can only describe as  a deconstructed baked potato, sour cream and bacon included. The green broad beans tasted like they’d just been picked from the garden. And the three desserts offered included homemade strawberry pie. Goes to show that when you offer a few items and prepare them remarkably well, you create a remarkable meal.

Breakfast was equally good and gave us the strength we needed for a complicated day. A, boyfriend N, and S were driving south to Oak Island, North Carolina south of Wilmington to open up the AirBnB beach house we’d rented for the week. We were driving north and east to pick up my parents in Durham and then immediately turn south again to meet everyone in Oak Island. Mountains, meet beach. It was time for the next leg.

Lost in Florida – Staring Down Charles Bronson

So this is the first of my Lost in Florida series since the time of coronavirus. And yes, this particular adventure was designed by our friend S — he of the famous Tosohatchee trail hike where he didn’t bother looking at the reverse side of the map — which was in color and indicated that much of said trail was blue (meaning under water). For that adventure click on The Lost in Florida Series – The Tosohatchee Wilderness.

Now, in fairness, this time he checked both sides of the map and the 9 mile loop in the Charles H. Bronson State Forest (I kid you not about the name) showed not even a tinge of blue. But, what the map didn’t show was that days and days of rain had turned an otherwise well marked trail into canals worthy of Venice. (Apparently Charles H. Bronson was a Florida public official who worked in the department of agriculture.)

Now, when I say canal, I don’t mean that the water was nicely contained like a Netherlands water control situation. No, first you’d encounter just a little bit of a soggy section on a low part of the trail. Then the soggy section would get wetter and deeper until it overflowed its banks into a bayou of 20 or more feet of brown tannic water which you just prayed was not inhabited by snakes.

There were few choices. Try to find some high ground around the sides and risk the thorns and people traps formed by vines, tiptoe through said water hoping it wouldn’t crest the top of your hiking boots, or just tromp the entire thing saying damned if you do, damned if you don’t. After five hours of slogging through I took the third option.

The area surrounding the trail is very beautiful. Of course, we couldn’t see much of the trail itself since it was under water. J and I and our hiking companions in crime, M and S, started just before 10 am at the Joshua Trailhead. After hiking out a short (and dry) spur to the actual loop, we decided to go right. It turned out to be a good choice because the wettest parts were on that side of the loop and I’m not sure we could have conquered them at the end.

The canopy is high and deep. Creamy petals from small magnolia trees sprinkled the first part of the trail, for all the world as if for a wedding procession. Occasional meadows were covered in wildflowers – fields of perky yellow ones, vivid oranges mixed with ornate pinks, tall blooming yuccas like grapes, and purple thistles as high as my head.

Then the water would come. Slightly oily looking in some places, clear in others, but always with a brown tannic look that you could take as mysterious or menacing. At one point we did hear something that could have been a bear or a boar, and raised our voices accordingly.

Interspersed with the jungle were stands of Florida pines with little underbrush, along which were treeless prairies. The trail narrowed so there was barely room for a person to creep between the tall scrub on either side.

The final slog was not wet but unbelievably hot. It was 95 degrees. We had not brought enough water since we usually have too much and were down to our last sips by mile 9. By then the injury count was high. M had impressive scrapes after she encountered a vine trap apparently designed to capture people; I had a great bruise from clamboring over a fallen tree, combined with multiple bites from mosquitoes who were impervious to DEET; and J and S were both dehydrated.

Our pace was slow, and our survival skills would not have earned us an A in any Sierra Club challenge. Anytime you run out of water in 90 plus degree weather you know you’ve done something wrong. But at the end of the day, it didn’t matter. We faced down Charles Bronson and won!

Need a Summit – Acotango?

When last FromSwampToSummit wrote she was wandering through downtown Orlando, contemplating the eerie emptiness of the heretofore bustling streets and plazas. But after her husband questioned the sanity of continuing to go into the office each day, even by foot, the interests of marital harmony (especially under lockdown) took precedence over the walk to work every day goal. So those excursions have been circumscribed to once a week.

But what, you ask, does this have to do with Acotango, a potentially active volcano of over 19,000 feet located in Bolivia? (Photo of Acotango By Gerard Prins – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.) Well, it turns out that it is very difficult to try to stay in shape without some goal ahead. The sheer pleasure of being in shape somehow isn’t enough to put up with the pain. And yes, Katahdin in Maine lies ahead in July, and presuming we can travel by then, I am sure will present a challenge – but somehow, not enough to keep these now 59 year old legs pumping.

Acclimatizing outside Leh, Ladakh, India 2018

Spur of the moment last weekend we picked up the phone and called our adventure companion S in Alaska, of Stok Kangri and Mt. Elbrus fame. See, among others, The Peak – Summit of Stok Kangri, India. He too is looking for that next expedition and between the three of us we have cobbled together the start of a plan.

Based on J’s research, it looks as though a trip through the salt flats of Bolivia and the world’s highest desert, capped by a non technical climb of Acotango could be in order. The landscape is dry and otherworldly – odd rock formations. And Acotango itself may still have life – apparently it erupted 10,000 years ago, which is recent in volcanic terms. So there’s still life in those old bones.

What better way to celebrate my 60th birthday next year and the 10th anniversary of our climbing career! Let the training begin.

Stones in My Pockets – Summits Sustained

Glacial beds on Stok Kangri Trek

I will confess. I have a stone in my coat pocket, purloined from some exotic spot, I know not where. It could be from Ladakh, India on the way to Stok Kangri. Or I might have surreptitiously slipped it into my pocket on the trek to Everest Base Camp. Perhaps it dates even further back, to the more domestic but no less adventurous White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Everest Base Camp

Whatever its origin, I get enormous pleasure from touching its rough edges, rolling it between my fingers. The rock of unknown ancestry is the descendant of the lucky pecan I kept in my coat pocket for years. My lucky pecan was picked up on Minerva Avenue (what a name of a street to grow up on) and resided in my old Michael Kors jacket – bought at a Tuesday Morning, no less – until the sad day that said jacket disappeared, I think in California. I believe I was as upset about the loss of the lucky pecan as I was by the loss of the jacket. By then the pecan had grown smooth as silk from my rolling it around in my hand as I walked, like an organic worry stone. And I figured if I were ever stranded on a desert island perhaps I could eat it and survive, or plant it as a sign of hope for the future. Although admittedly, the latter probably wouldn’t improve my chances of survival.

But regardless, those talismans in my coat pockets make something concrete out of the virtual world in which we live. Our lives are comprised now of internet virtuality even more ethereal than the wispy clouds you zoom through when taking off in an airplane. There’s nothing to touch, and the world becomes like a memory.

One of my yoga teachers brought small polished stones to class the other day, for people to hold as they chose in class. I guess the same concept as my purloined rock. It makes those past summits real, just like the lucky pecan anchored where I grew up. And this small rock is now inspiring me to return to the stairs, backpack and all, to get ready to climb Mt. Katahdin in Maine.

Balancing – Green Belt, Austin

Whatever its source,

Hidden Things in North Carolina – A New Decade Awaits

A trip to my family home in the Piedmont of North Carolina is always full of the hidden. Shadows of the past; remnants of the present. And Christmas of 2019 was no exception.

Some remnants of the present were literally remnants. There’s a place called the Scrap Exchange in Durham, run by a not for profit organization, that houses bins of about anything you can think of. Egg cartons, for example. Door knobs. Left over and partially used craft projects. I scored 6 Christmas stockings for a dollar each (you can never have too many), two Irish linen handkerchiefs in their original souvenir packaging for fifty cents (my brother had the temerity to ask what I would do with them), and a holiday adorned roll cover for my mother (there is such a thing). The latter two were in a bin optimistically labeled “vintage linens.”

Beyond that, there are always hidden things at Five Oaks, the weekend home my parents bought many years ago north of Durham. There is now only one big oak tree, four having been felled by various hurricanes, but “One Oak” doesn’t have the same ring. Over the years, my father has created multiple vistas designed around one or more objects he’s made from whatever happened to be on hand. But as time has crept (leapt?) by, the underbrush has become above brush and said objects peek forth through a chaos of leaves and branches. Can you see the pot?

The Smokehouse

Five Oaks was also the scene of a hide and seek adventure this year – involving Teddy, my parents’ extremely large furry 8 year old dog, who looks like a Swedish Lapphund. As a dog, he is allowed to be identified by his full name, rather than an initial.

There’s a dog in there somewhere

We all took a walk across the meadow through the woods and down to the bluff that overlooks a creek. Teddy lumbered along beside us, staying quite close, until we reached the bluff. At which point, N (boyfriend of daughter A for those of you who don’t read this regularly) confidently predicted Teddy wouldn’t try to make it down because he’d be worried about making it back up. At which point Teddy decided to prove N wrong and took off down said bluff, across the creek, over and through a neighbor’s pond. Repeated calls by humans were much less tempting than the gobble gobbles of the wild turkey he had decided to chase. It was particularly disconcerting because we could hear loud cracks of gunshot from some nearby hunters.

Ultimately S (as in daughter S’s boyfriend) undertook the task of tracking down Teddy (who by now was a blur in the distance), which required S heroically removing his shoes and socks, wading through creek and pond, and somehow convincing Teddy that he was more interesting than a wild turkey. In the meantime I had run back to the house to get Teddy’s leash to prevent any further escapes. Teddy rather sheepishly made his way back up the bluff and N has now been banned from speaking things into existence.

Downtown Durham itself has turned hidden things into an art form. Who knew that the rundown Jack Tarr motel I remember from the 1970s really wanted to be a fancy cocktail bar all this time?

So as we close out 2019 and roll into 2020 – the beginning of a new decade after all (will they be roaring?) I hope we all appreciate the hidden things around us, whether human, animal, or other. The 2010s were full of summits for J and me, most of them very visible. I hope the 2020s will be the same. But it’s important to remember that not all summits are mountain peaks, and some of those hidden ones are just as significant. Happy new decade, one and all.

Between the Summits in the U.S.A.

Point Lobos, California, 2019

People keep asking me, “What’s the next one?” The reality is that we are in a between year. Trying not to make it sound like the doldrums (what a great word), but when I looked at my schedule for next year, I simply can’t find a spot for a two week trip plus weekends on either side. I am usually able to preserve that period of respite but this year’s judicial system apparently had other ideas in mind. Hmm.

Mauna Kea, Hawaii, 2013

We haven’t had a between year for a while. In fact, I think since 2013 which somewhat inadvertently turned into one due to a virulent flu attack on J as we were about to embark on our Hawaii backpacking trip. Since then, we’ve climbed Elbrus, Ecuador’s volcanoes, hiked the Scottish Highlands and the Peaks of the Balkans, and summited Stok Kangri at all of its over 20,000 foot splendor.

Our home at Mt. Elbrus, Russia, 2014

So what will 2020 hold? The year itself – with its parallel numbers – must mean something. Thus far, the idea is a throwback – a week at the North Carolina beach with family and friends. Haven’t done that for years. And hopefully the daughters are now old enough to avoid sea kayaking accidents like the one many years ago that caused me to call 911 to everyone’s great embarrassment since they’d hauled themselves out of the ocean by the time the rescue team arrived. I suspect we are still black listed at the sea kayak rental place.

But as fun as that will be, there have to be some actual summits somewhere. It looks like work will take me to Seattle over spring break – and there appear to be some nearby hikes with a good 3500-4000 feet of elevation gain. And N, A’s boyfriend, has suggested we hike the northern part of the Appalachian Trail and summit Mt. Katahdin. It’s the highest mountain in Maine and he promises he knows the way to reach its 5,267 foot peak.

That sounds appealing. Given that the odds of our hiking the entire AT are probably close to nil we might as well cross the finish line first.

So, I may wrap the decade of my 50s with local summits. They are just as important as the others. But 2021 marks the 10th anniversary of the start of all my mountaineering and related adventures. Entertaining suggestions for another non (or at least mostly non) technical, over 20,000 foot mountain for my 60th birthday next year! Got to keep looking toward the future!

A and N looking toward the future from Mt. Washington, New Hampshire

My Yoga Summits

Yoga. It’s been an underlying theme to this blog since the early days. In fact, I’ve tried to honor my practice by doing at least a few asanas on mountains and trails through all of our adventures – from the steep treks in Nepal to India to rocky riverbed hikes in Austin, Texas.

Over the last couple of weeks of silence on the blog – I promise I really haven’t been binge watching TV (well, I did finish Succession) – I have been spending at least a little time honing my thoughts on the topic.

I started practicing regularly at the Y back in the early 2000s, when my daughters were old enough that I felt I could take two hours respite from motherly, lawyerly, chief cook and bottlewasher duties on Sunday afternoons. I still remember my first yoga class. I positioned myself in the back row of the 30 or so yogis – that was pre the construction of the Y’s yoga studio and we practiced in the “Fitnasium,” a fancy word for a small gym. You could line yourself up with the various floor markings. My yoga teacher at that class remained my Sunday afternoon yoga teacher for almost 20 years until she recently stepped down. And I’ve been practicing with the guy next to me now for an equivalent length of time. He’s ten or so years older than I and I’m now older than he was when we first met.

There’s a community that forms in a regular yoga practice. Wednesdays and Sundays are my days of choice. While people come and go there been a regular core of us over the years. I refer to them as my yoga buddies. There’s something to be said for the sharing that goes on as you contort yourself into the next pretzel like position. And before or after class we can complain about our latest ache or pain or the state of the world in general. It’s those little interactions that build connection (karma?) that can carry you through your week and up your next summit.

Teachers – and I’ve been blessed with great ones – can add to the practice, but they really are guides, not yoga maestros. It’s the combination of energy and eventual calm of those in class that creates the yogic environment.

How, you may ask, does this relate to summits? Well, aside from the obvious physical benefits – clambering up rock frequently require flexibility – there’s a mindset that goes with you. It’s a degree of determination that you can in fact hold that posture for a few seconds beyond what you thought. It’s a focus on that next step in front of you instead of obsessing about whether there’s a fake summit a few hundred (but oh so long and steep) meters away. It’s keeping an intention in your mind, body, spirit that propels you upward. It works for work, too.

My Wednesday night yoga class is the one that lets me know I really can get through the rest of the week. My Sunday one brings the calm that lets me start a new one. Both summits, of a sort. Namaste.

Balkans Trek Part 4 – Kotor Bay and Welcome to Croatia

It’s perhaps a little misleading to characterize the final part of the Balkans saga as a trek. Perhaps a journey in a time machine is more like it – we were about to move from a world where our dinner was being butchered before us into the land of tourists and suntan lotion.

We started our next to the last day with a very beautiful and less terrifying drive to Kotor Bay. Kotor Bay, located in Montenegro, is filled with domestic tourists, all of whom were enjoying spectacular weather. We were also celebrating the end of the trek with much nicer accommodations – J and I even had a room with a balcony and a view of the bay. Prices went up accordingly. No more Pristina like lunches for 8 for $20 with drinks.

Once settled into the hotel we all walked down to the beach and found a restaurant with the unlikely name of Jet Ski for lunch. After yet another Greek salad, we walked into Old Town and visited several churches, both Catholic and Orthodox. Lots of relics (think silver gloves with a small aperture through which there is theoretically a nail clipping of a saint). Turned out to be a good place for souvenirs as well – particularly intricately embroidered linens.

It was then time for a boat ride to Perast. For once, our legs truly weren’t our main mode of transportation. Kotor Bay is basically a fjord. We sailed down one side, past two islands, one of which was manmade, very crowded, and housed a church that looked Orthodox but was Catholic, and another that was natural, privately owned, and was the home of a church that was Orthodox but looked Catholic. So much for architectural sterotypes.

We ended up in the pretty village of Perast. the houses were uniformly built of light colored stone with red rooves (as everywhere in Montenegro), and dotted with colorful window boxes. At the end of the village was a narrow strip of concrete and gravel beach, dominated by a huge bar. It was quite the scene – a mashup of 20 year olds in bikinis and speedos, and families out for the afternoon.

That night, our guide B had picked a very nice restaurant where we ate on the outdoor terrace – mussels with a tomato sauce was the specialty and the salad had real lettuce as opposed to cabbage! Or just tomatoes and cucumbers.

After dinner we walked down y the water. Lots of people, bars, and music, and J from Newcastle bought everyone a round of flavored raki. So strange that the last time it was offered was at 10 a.m. in a remote Albanian meadow.

On the final day of the “trek” – I use quotes on purpose – we journeyed via a large van to the border of Croatia, where we had quite a wait. We watched as one poor soul, a middle aged man in a fedora, had to get off a bus while everything in the vehicle was searched. Not clear whether they let him back on or not.

We bid farewell to our guide and travel companions at the Dubrovnik airport. We were now having to use kuna instead of euros. Made our way to a very unique Airbnb in Lapad Beach, and quickly found our way to a bar located in an actual cave at the Hotel More. The trek was over, but we still had four days in Dubrovnik to go.

Yes, it’s a bar in a cave!

Balkans Trek Part 3 – A Magic Meadow, A Rocky Descent, and a Boat Ride

Our night in the Albanian kitchen converted to bedroom for four went fairly well and we were excited for the day’s adventure, which had been billed as a trek across an “idyllic meadow.”  Our guide, who had some unusual turns of phrase in English, explained we would pass several  “summer cottages.”  Being from Florida, I naturally assumed that meant the Albanian and Montenegron version of a beach house. But as you’ll see, such was not the case.

We started off about 9, first through the dark and gloomy woods we had trudged through before, encountering a steep uphill slog at the outset.  Then came what I can only call the Land of Berries — tiny wild strawberries, sweeter than store bought, blueberries on the cusp of ripeness. Later we tried a “dude,” a berry from a tree, similar to a blackberry.

We emerged from the berry bushes into the meadows which indeed lived up to their billing — an absolutely idyllic land of long grasses.   A rolling valley, dotted with the so-called summer cottages.  Not vacation homes at all, but small stone dwellings where farmers stayed in the summer to make cheese and yoghurt to bring to town to sell in the winter.  Each little house had a “cold” room, and the occupants took up the rest of the space, sometimes with livestock as well.

It felt as though I was gliding through the grasses, a steady warm wind at my back propelling me forward.  A farmer couple called over to us to offer free raki — there’s a strong host tradition in this area — and several partook despite the relatively early hour of 10 a.m.  Just beyond, and up another hill, we came upon another small dwelling, this time guarded by two mother pigs and their dozen or so very curious piglets.  They were absolutely the cleanest pigs I have ever seen.

This is the Christian part of Albania, and large crosses stood on top of several peaks, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Donkeys joined us at one point on the descent

Eventually it was back into the woods, followed by the descent.  We’d been warned it was long – and it was – about 1300 m. of altitude loss.  The trail down was nothing but loose rock, reminiscent of what we hiked coming down parts of Stok Kangri.  (See The Descent- Death March on Stok Kangri, India .) It was so hot and sunny that the glare on the rocks reflected back up on our faces. But persevere we did, and finally emerged into an almost alley at the edge of a small village, through some fields, under a grape arbor, and into an “end of trail” café set up by someone on their porch.

After some celebratory beers – this was the last full day of trekking – we piled into our van for the ride back through the gorge. I wasn’t by the window but those who were described it as hair-raising. I hadn’t realized before how high up and remote we had been.  After some hours, we crossed the border back into Montenegro. Unlike our on-foot crossings in the mountains – where not even a natural feature separated one country from the other – this one required quite a wait.

Our next stop was Lake Skadar. Having just been in the isolated beauty of deepest Albania, it was a shock to be in a place packed with hundreds of local tourists.  We made our way to the tiny town center where we stayed at the Pelican Hotel, named for a very rare sort of pelican that nests at the lake and that we didn’t see.  The smallness of the rooms was more than compensated for by the fact each had their own bathroom.  That night we ate fabulous local trout at the hotel restaurant, which was decorated with hats of all types.

After dinner some of us ventured out.  After narrowly avoiding a fight about to break out between some of the more rowdy tourists we ended up in a “handmade souvenir shop.”  The proprietress, who told us she didn’t like all the Chinese-made items being sold in Skadar, had turned her back room into a one woman factory where she made molds, baked her ceramic wares in a kiln, and even melted glass from old bottles to decorate them with.

The following morning instead of our own two feet we used a boat.  Lake Skadar is huge, 500 km or so wide, and is almost Florida-like, with a carpet of lily pads and fields of what looks like bamboo.  But the looming mountains on either side made it clear Florida it wasn’t.  Flocks of birds skimmed low on the water, and we stopped for a quick swim….some of us, A and N in particular, swam more than others!

Back in town it was a scramble to get back in the van, which was illegally parked. This resulted in the loss of daughter S’s backpack, hiking poles, and hiking boots, all of which fortunately caught up with us over the next couple of days, thanks to another tour group following along behind us.

We knew this was to be a busy day.  We drove to Cintje, the original capitol of Montenegro.  Unfortunately none of us found it overwhelmingly exciting, and we also parked right by yet another beer fest and music festival which was doing a very loud sound check. I felt like we’d been following the festival circuit.  There were some nice old Colonial buildings and we ended up at a good place for lunch with the unlikely name of “Scottish Academie” neither of whose food nor décor seemed to have anything to do with that part of the world. I had what must have been my tenth Greek salad.

From there we drove to the national park of Lovcen. The main activity there is to walk up several hundred steps (which by now felt like nothing) to the mausoleum of Peter II Petrovic Njegos – the 19th century unifying ruler of  Montenegro.   It turns out J must have been a descendant – or so he looked when he donned the costume available at the top!

We finished the day with a fairly easy 3 hour hike descending from the mausoleum through the dappled forest to arrive in Njegusi village.  It was mostly leafy trails with a few stony parts thrown in to keep us on our toes.  We eventually made it the cute little village, which turned out to be home to Montenegron prosciutto, cheese, and wine, all of in which we partook liberally. We stayed in little cottages that housed three people each.  The terrible mattresses (don’t ask) were made up for by the view out the window, waking up to the sound of farm animals, and the cheese!

Next up – our trek ends with stay in Kotor Bay.

The view from the window in Njegusi

 

Balkans Trek Part 2 – Albanian Adventures: A Pass and Two Peaks

My travel journal starts off: I am sitting in the warm sunshine on a picnic bench at the Guesthouse Lepushe, in Albania, surrounded by the Accursed Mountains. Several of our group are playing cards, and another is sharing wine made by the nuns at the monastery we visited the previous day – straight from the plastic screw top bottle – with a pasted on label over the original brand. I’m in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

Two days ago our first full day of trekking began with a classic Kosovo breakfast on the porch -tomatoes, egg, puffy fried bread, cheese and olives. Somehow all the trekkers at the home stay each got a turn at the one bathroom before setting off. Lunch food was set out so everyone could make their own sandwiches for what was billed as the most difficult of the trekking days.

We took jeeps to the start of the trail, which started with a straight up trajectory. They don’t believe in switchbacks here. We later learned that a lot of the trails were old smugglers’ paths. We hiked through long-grassed meadows where the wildflowers became even more exotic – now shocking blue periwinkles interrupted the yellows, pinks, and purples. Our first stop was a glacial lake – not blue but green glass. A second glacial lake came soon after, this one very low and banded by rock.

We continued onward and upward, finally reaching the Jalanek Pass, with limestone cliffs all about. Walking along the border of Kosovo and Montenegro, ultimately we started to follow the “signs” down, bringing us into Montenegro. It was a very long descent with some rocky spots – we had gained a lot of elevation.

Yoga just before the pass

After 7 hours or so, we could finally see the vans that were to deliver us to that night’s accommodationway below us across some meadows. However, it turned out those fields were the property of an ancient farmer who staggered over to us with a walking stick in each hand while we had stopped for a very brief rest. He was seemingly unable to speak in words but eventually pulled out a piece of paper that made clear he expected tribute for crossing. Our guide quickly rallied us all and we ascended back up the meadows and found a way down through some fields being harvested by a much more congenial farmer who apologized for the behavior of his neighbor.

The next controversy involved deep unhappiness among the drivers of the three vans – too many had been ordered and our guide had had no cell service so he couldn’t let anyone know. Eventually, after a flurry of extremely loud communication – with great umbrage and angst on all sides – we ended up with all three vans, although J was the only passenger in one of them.

Our “tiny houses” in Montenegro

Following our 7-8 hour trek, we had an hour or so drive to some cottages in a national park where we were staying the night. We drove through several small towns, a number with Florida style McMansions planted right next to traditional small concrete dwellings. Nothing is really “quaint” here – the utilitarian architecture of post WW2 USSR left a strong mark. According to our guide, Montenegro is now a good place to house money, and Montenegrans who reside in the west frequently maintain large residences in the Montenegran countryside.

By then, somehow we had assuaged the van drivers and we all loaded into two vans for the final stretch. There were 4 of us in a three person row in the smaller van. The steep uphill on the way to the national park simply proved too much for its engine, and despite several valient attempts (I kept thinking of the little engine that could), it kept stalling half way up the mountain. Eventually four of us got out and finished the day the way we started – trekking up the last hill.

The cottages that night felt quite luxurious. Each couple had their own, with a private bathroom and a little porch. I felt like I was in the tiny house show. There was also a great restaurant, filled with families, many in Islamic dress but an equal number in western garb.

The next day it was time to venture into Albania. As a child of the ’70s, I still found it unbelievable that you were permitted into that country, which was historically one of the most closed off places in the world. The first part was uphill through a dark and gloomy forest. It was overcast and quite humid. Finally the sun started to break out, and we reached the tree line, through more meadows and to the top of the first peak of the day. From that peak we descended along a saddle and back up along a very exposed ridge that connected the peaks. We could see Albania. But there was another peak yet to be climbed!

Sheer drops were on either side of the ridge trail but that didn’t seem to bother the flocks of goats that were cavorting along the hillsides. The Accursed Mountains loomed over the trail, steep sharp crags etched against the sky. The wind finally died down and we were able to stop and take a lunch break on the top of the second peak.

We took our time on the long meandering descent, finally walking into the little village of Lepushe, Albania for another home stay.  There, J, me, A and N shared what must have originally been the kitchen.  It was quite convenient to have our own sink in the room.

We arrived about mid-afternoon on an absolutely lovely day. One other small group was staying but it was clear we were in the middle of nowhere. Boys were racing a donkey and a horse in the dirt street; the owners gave us a tour of the restaurant they were building out of stone next to the house. I’m also pretty sure we say our dinner being butchered on a stone slab.

We watched the sun sink over the Accursed Mountain, suddenly turning the steel grey into a soft pink. I guess that’s sort of how I felt about Albania.